Portmanteaus used to be amazeballs. But the flamboyant portmanteau has become a divisive linguistic device; the blending together of two words to form a new word can either be playfully creative or as annoying as the fact that Kyle Sandilands still pollutes the airwaves.
To really work, we need to be convinced by the need for them, and we need to have heard of them – at least in the popular vernacular – on the streets, on social media, in the playground, on Kyle and Jackie O’s radio show.
Before Monday, no one, it seems, had ever heard of “Kwaussie” – the word of the year 2017 for the Australian National Dictionary Centre (ANDC). It’s the portmanteau of “Kiwi” and “Aussie.” Allegedly, it “took off” on social when it was discovered that the deputy prime minister at the time, Barnaby Joyce, was a Kwaussie and needed to resign immediately.
On Monday Twitter was awash with people saying it was the first day they had even heard of this curious blend. I spoke to ANDC director Amanda Laugesen, who told me the word was selected by a panel of editors, including three full-time staff members and some researchers. In response to the fact that more people seem to have heard of NSW Labor leader Luke Foley than this new word (not a career aspiration for any portmanteau), Laugesen said, “people aren’t checking all the spelling variants on social, including Kwozzie and Kwozzy.” Alrighty. But she couldn’t provide statistics to substantiate its alleged and much-disputed widespread use.
One person at least – my fellow Guardian columnist Van Badham – knows what they’re on about; as a Kwaussie herself, she used it in a Guardian column. Presumably she paid off a subeditor to keep it in when they inevitably tried to remove it for clarity.
When a dictionary tries to serve us fake news, is this the final step in an ongoing erosion of trust in once august authorities trying to convince us black is white? We expect dictionaries to be like BBC newsreaders: stern, steadfast, battle-axe like. Not desperately chasing the zeitgeist to claw back some relevance and yoof-cred. Dictionaries should be Kate Adie or Leigh Sales, not Gretchen Weiner or Ja’mie. In Mean Girls, schoolgirl Gretchen Weiner describes any pleasant situation as “fetch” in an attempt to coin a new term for cool: “It’s, like, slang from … England.” Anti-hero Regina George shoots her down: “Gretchen, stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It’s not going to happen!” Similarly, Chris Lilley’s Ja’mie tried to introduce “quiche”, meaning attractive, which also isn’t going to happen. Quiche, fetch and Kwaussie are just not going to happen.
The sad thing is, this really could have been the portmanteau’s day. Being elevated to the lauded gravitas of word of the year would have given it the sort of comeback Sam Dastyari would covet. And one is desperately needed. These days, the portmanteau is often only invoked when people want to get out of something. Brexit. Grexit. Frexit. Even a shortlisted word by the ANDC was WAxit, the hypothetical departure of WA from the Australian federation.
The portmanteau used to come into its own when describing ingenuity. Behold the spork, a spoon that is also a fork. Or the staycation, saving us thousands of dollars and the social shame of checking in at an Australian airport in summer to fly to Bali.
But it lost its way. Once, it was used for the nicknames of cool pop stars like JLo. Now it’s wheeled in to insult buffoon-like politicians like coal-loving ScoMo (Scott Morrison) or blundering BoJo (Boris Johnson). The portmanteau looks across at alliteration, used exclusively to glitz up pedestrian copy, with a sense of bitterness and sadness. Once the Eton mess of trendy neology, the portmanteau is now a laughing stock. In Coles you can even buy Kalettice or Kaleslaw. When you’re the last resort of the Kale marketing board, you know you’ve fallen on hard times.
But maybe we’re taking this all a bit too seriously. On the one hand, yes, the word of the year is reductive and unrepresentative. On the other, it’s a celebration of the bold playfulness and wittiness in being ultra-concise. The ANDC itself just tweeted: “Can everyone just lighten up a little? This is Word of the Year, not Bird of the Year.”
Some dictionaries do take the process a bit more seriously. Oxford Dictionaries, for example, collate 150m words from various sources into a database. This data is then analysed by editors to track and verify new and emerging word trends, meaning two word nerds could easily have a spirited, bespectacled debate over the merits of Kwaussie v LOLZ before a third chimes in with Netflix-and-chill. But the extensive methods of Oxford Dictionaries still sometimes cause stirs of their own: in 2015, it selected the crying-with-laughter emoji as word of the year. As many people were up in arms about an emoji not being a word as those who argued it should have been the nail-varnishing hand, the ultimate succinct way of conveying superiority-tinged nonchalance that I’ve ever seen.
Concision, then, is still alive and well. Twitter may have gone up to 280 characters this year, but we can still have a national debate over a single word. Or to be specific, two words, blended into one. The tone of the debate, though, reveals the word of the year for what it really is: a dictionary marketing exercise to keep their PRs busy over silly season.
What would be your word of the year? Portmanteaus will get preferential treatment.
- Gary Nunn specialises in writing about language
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010